Interview: City Limits (1986)

This interview was published in City Limits on 11 September 1986.

The 2 Alans

Being Britain's most commercially successful playwright since Noël Coward leads many to believe Alan Ayckbourn blows his nose on crumpled fivers. But despite rumour, he isn't a millionaire though 'that amount has passed through me. I could be, I suppose, if I didn't live here. Secondly, I've remained with theatre which isn't the big business world of film.'

Ayckbourn shares other notable similarities with Coward apart from West End box office clout. Coward also achieved star writer /
director status, often directing his own material. Likewise Ayckbourn writes fast "at the last minute after plenty of pre-thought. Having discovered the mixed blessing of the word processor, it now takes about a week."

And he's prolific.
A Chorus of Disapproval presently enlivens the Lyric; Woman in Mind, about a wife and mother who fantasises gorgeous soap-opera substitutes for her dull real life family, opens at the Vaudeville this week - the 32nd play to originate from Ayckbourn's homebase at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Meanwhile the BBC are currently filming the allegorical Way Upstream [1] and A Small Family Business is slated for production at the Olivier.

Alongside all this Ayckbourn's in-house company will tackle the farcical
Tons of Money at the Lyttleton and Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge in the Cottesloe. Although Coward rigidly observed the bright young Sloanes of his day and Ayckbourn's chosen social strata encompasses middle class suburbia, the semi-detached home of the sherry schooner and 80% mortgage, Coward too was almost entirely under-rated at his peak. "Maybe", Ayckbourn suggests, "it's the British attitude to comedy. Bringing audiences in and making them laugh is frowned upon."

Born in London in 1939 to a musician father and writer mother Ayckbourn's seemingly safe sedate childhood dissolved when his parents divorced. (Freud followers please note.) "My mother was the uncrowned queen of the women's magazine market. I became used to seeing the family breadwinner working at the typewriter. Finally she bought me a small typewriter to keep me quiet. I banged out derivative high action adventures."

Public school, he ruefully recalls, "teaches you to survive." Neither sporty nor academically brilliant the scholarship student carved a niche "at the arty end". The aspiring thespian would journey to the capital to catch the shows. "I saw the Whitehall farces which were wonderful. And at the Comedy Club you could see plays banned by the Lord Chamberlain.
Tea and Sympathy, A Streetcar Named Desire. Lots of meaty American imports."

Ayckbourn was 17 when he left Haileybury. Drama school was out - "no money" - though a stint with infamous face puller
Donald Wolfit stiffened his resolve to pursue the footlights and fame. Rep provided an answer. "I entered through the back door as a stage manager," Ayckbourn chuckles, "I learnt the theatre from the ground up."

Raised with 'pre-59 Coward, Rattigan and Shaw, he arrived in time for a ringside view of the Royal Court fireworks, Catherine wheels and sky rockets courtesy of John Osborne and Co. "I got caught in the crossfire of two different camps. I admired the earlier generation. Then along came the New Wave boys."

Surfing the New Wave, Ayckbourn's tastes tended towards the experimental. A chance fringe encounter with Sartre's
Huis Clos generated excitement and fresh ideas. [1] Of course Huis Clos most famous deep thought could just as easily refer to Ayckbourn's dramatic terrain - Absent Friends, Just Between Ourselves and Bedroom Farce - hell is very definitely other people. And his later work would brilliantly bridge the best of old and new; precision engineering plus genuine messy emotion spited with savage laughter.

Ayckbourn's brand of acidly detailed Chekhovian realism appeared at a moment when traditional notions of the middle class had started to evaporate. As the social grouping expanded, middle class soon meant anything from fallen landed gentry a la Audrey Forbes-Hamilton to nice folk living
The Good Life [2] or Abigail's Party spawned ambitious climbers. Ayckbourn used the West End - the educated English middle classes preferred mirror - to accurately reflect a transformation. His brand of double edged one-liner simultaneously undercuts and reinforces 'serious' middle class concerns, releasing the terrors beneath repressive politeness. Behind sweet established order lurks embarrassing chaos. To borrow Clive Barne's remark about "The Front Page's whiz-bang construction, Ayckbourn's elegantly crafted works are clocks that laugh".

"For better or worse I am middle class. I spent my childhood bang in the centre of the Home Counties as the stepson of a bank manager. Where you were born and how you were raised dictates the voice in your head. Today, nearly everyone's middle class. The term doesn't suggest a narrow layer any longer, though my feeling is for London suburbia. Maybe going as far as Reading but not further than that."

How does Ayckbourn interpret the middle classes' new fuck-'em-and-grab-the-lolly entrepreneurial urge? It's obviously the right question:

"Ah! I'm very much interested in them. The politics of envy. Currently we've got the appalling state of a divided society. The Americans feel you can make it on your own. Here the feeling is the very few can make it and they operate dishonestly. The atmosphere sanctions dishonesty. And the dishonesty comes from the top. No one's shocked to learn top Government figures, be they Conservative or Labour, have a Swiss bank account. From allowing that we allow more. Like rust on car, it erodes. Those who put money before people are wrong and sometimes very evil."

An extremely left wing friend once described the author as an anarchist. A bemused Ayckbourn says "I guess I'm more that way than the other. A sort of Social Democrat. Certainly not SDP! I do feel frightened when someone gets so convinced of their views they're willing to inflict damage, physical or economic, in order to enforce them."

Why are his female figures so damaged, liable to catatonia (
Just Between Ourselves); hysterical crying jags (Bedroom Farce); and breakdown - in Woman in Mind Susan's idle daydreams eventually blend with the everyday; her sanity totters. "Yes, I've noticed that men continue to slap their thighs long after the women have stopped reacting. The older women I find myself writing about are the generation caught between liberation and the duty thing about maintaining the home. They've had to create new identities piecemeal. They simply can't be themselves".

"I'm amused by how men attempt to come to grips with woman's new self image. The British aren't terribly good at it. At parties men and women separate to either ends of the room. The women always seem to be having a better time so I stay with them. Far more interesting than listening to terrible jokes. I have noticed though that the young actors and actresses I know appear to have a firmer grip on the whole mess."

It's difficult to credit that '80s Ayckbourn, a man enjoying world wide acclaim and global royalties, once abandoned the stage (to become a
BBC radio drama producer) in the aftermath of a three week run of Mr Whatnot. [3]

Still, he has the last laugh. "If you survive you go in and out of fashion. Fashion can't be controlled. After
The Norman Conquests I was splashed across the papers as the greatest comedy playwright since Congreve. Next year the cry was 'How dare Ayckbourn claim he's as great as Congreve!'"

Website Notes:
[1] Alan's encounter with
Huis Clos was not chance. A fellow stage manager had told Alan that there were stage management jobs going at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. The company did regular Sunday performances in London and the pair went to see Huis Clos to discover more about the company. What Alan saw was the UK's first in-the-round production of the play and the UK's first professional in-the-round company, directed by the man who was to become his most influential mentor, Stephen Joseph.
The Good Life is a famed BBC television situation comedy, which ran from 1975 to 1978, which the writers - Bob Larbey and John Edmond - have said was influenced to an extent by Ayckbourn's writing, particularly The Norman Conquests; not uncoincidentally, the series featured Felicity Kendall and Penelope Keith, who had both won acclaim for their roles in the West End premiere of The Norman Conquests, as well as Richard Briers, who had appeared in several Ayckbourn West End hits.
[3] Famously Alan's first West End transfer was the disastrous flop,
Mr Whatnot in 1964. Such was the vitriolic critical reaction to the piece, Alan joined the BBC to 'lick his wounds', determined not to continue writing for theatre; fortunately, it was a very short-lived resolution.

Copyright: City Limits. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.